Kids’ Big Fears: Part I

Not being able to control one’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors is a truly frightening experience. Think about the last time you felt road rage or the type of frustration that caused you to throw and break something. Now imagine that out-of-control state lasting for more than a few minutes and you have a glimpse of how frightening it can be for a young person to really “lose it.”

Fortunately, well-trained staff members excel at setting limits for campers. In fact, limits are everywhere at camp. Rules are reviewed on the first day (under the euphemistic guise of “orientation”), warning signs are everywhere (such as “No Diving” or “Waterfront Closed”), and etiquette traditions abound, such as walking in a straight line or keeping elbows off the meal table.

Each of these safe limits prevents children from losing some measure of control.

Said differently, camps prevent any regression to Lord of the Flies by having rules in place and employing adults to enforce those rules.

In an early scene from William Golding’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, the boys gather on the beach to discuss their predicament. It’s no surprise that Ralph states, “We have to have rules.” How prescient, because rules quell fears of losing control. Indeed, rules can ensure a group against the real possibility that the members collectively will lose control.

Staff members can also model healthy emotions by expressing their own frustration, anger, fear, or disappointment in mature ways. An elementary school poster reads, “All feelings are OK. It’s what you do with them that counts.” This actually comes alive at camp when staff members lead by example.

Being Abandoned

The moment we are born, we begin bonding with our primary caregivers. When a need arises, such as that for food or a dry diaper, we signal our caregivers by crying. Secure attachment results when these primary caregivers provide warm and reliable nurturing in response to crying or other displays of distress.

And from those early moments emerges a fear of the absence of such loving attention: the fear of being abandoned.

The difficulty children have separating from their parents for day or overnight camp is largely a function of inexperience and past relationships. Those campers most at risk for normative pathologies, such as homesickness, are the ones who have little previous experience away from home (and so they have not learned effective ways of coping), and the ones whose primary caregivers are anxious or unreliable (so these children have a pessimistic or uneasy attitude toward surrogate caregivers, such as camp staff).

Campers with a strong fear of being abandoned may be either clingy or dismissive of relationships altogether. They may have trouble making and keeping friends, may be disrespectful of staffers, and may experience intense homesickness.

Ironically, these children sometimes break rules in order to get in trouble, thus confirming their grim view of adults.

To thwart the fear of a camper’s being abandoned and to promote a healthy adjustment, camp directors can encourage practice time away from home. This helps the incoming camper to learn effective ways of coping.

And, although it may seem impossible to undo years of erratic parenting that has left a child feeling uncertain about separations, it is possible for all of the substitute parents (camp staff) to provide warmth and predictability.

Many of the most significant behavior problems at camp are durably resolved simply by including each child, by making each camper feel as if he or she is a valued member of the group.

Staff members must also recognize misbehavior for what it is: evidence that some children have not yet learned how to behave in a certain situation. These children–like all children–need limits and consequences. But more importantly, they need to be taught new social skills, new emotion-regulation skills, and new self-expression skills.

Putting It All Together

Active listening gets airtime in every camp’s training week. Staff members are dutifully taught to kneel at the child’s level, to maintain eye contact, and to make empathic comments. That’s a good start.

In the coming season, encourage the staff to listen with hearts and minds, not just eyes and ears. Asking themselves, “Is this young person responding to a core fear?” can guide the staff toward a more sensible and sensitive response.

Not every emotional or behavioral problem at camp is rooted in fear, but most kids have a big fear or two bumping around inside. Actually, we all do. And this shared reality anchors our most authentic and formative work with children.

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Related posts:

  1. Kids’ Big Fears, Part II
  2. The Fear Factor
  3. The Beauties Of Camp Duties
  4. Manners Matter
  5. Staff Conscious
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